Thursday, April 19, 2007

Covenant against evil

This week finds us dwelling on acts and omens of great evil around the world. But just because evil is always with us, and because there are no final solutions to it, we should not fall into the trap of thinking it is such a great mystery, that it is futile to attempt to understand it in hopes of temporary remedies. Here, for example, is a good definition of evil (Mark Gordon quotes the Orthodox priest, Fr. James Thornton):
…One may define evil as nothingness. Certainly evil never exits by itself but only inside of Goodness. Evil is a pure negation, a privation, a mutilation. But, though evil is a void of nothingness, it is a void which exists, which swallows and devours beings. It has no power to create, but its destructive power is enormous. Evil never ascends, it always descends. The very debasement of being that it produces is frightening. Evil is chaotic, it is a separation, a decomposition constantly in progress, a disorganization of the entire structure of being.
In other words, evil entails the loss of meaningful differences, or creative discriminations, under the force of a resentful mimesis, a burning desire to possess the things and status that some other possesses, to the point where one can no longer base one's sense of identity on a positive affirmation of what makes one different, but only on a negative resentment of those who seemingly alienate one from all that is sacred. When the nightmare of a constantly mimicing and frustrated desire reaches its evil climax, the only apparent "solution" is destruction of those people and their idols that alienate, that victimize, that remove us from what is our due and our right.

In what passes for our public and political life today, we witness an ethic of relativism and of victimary thinking in which an imperative to continually render all people equal in status rules. This entails, for our educational leaders, the deconstruction of meaningful differences, of status inequalities; and so the liberal "order" under which today's young people must try to find their way, often turns out to be a nightmare that sucks us down into nihilism, if the refusal of our desire for a solid sense of purpose and direction may even be figured as a downer. With a lack of ethical differentiations that define shared values and also the different places from which a symmetrical exchange of differences may be organized in shaping and contesting those values, with no particular hierarchy of values into which a young person might be initiated, or merely prepared for membership by the functionaries of our public "education" systems, the individual has to find his or her own ways to find values and ways of initiating himself into membership therein. Religion and good faith save some (not that religion alone solves for anyone the problems that can only be addressed by a political exchange among all stakeholders in a nation or civilization). But faced with such a daunting task, a fragile narcissism that easily takes offense, and just as easily proclaims the greatness of its owner, becomes the prevalent personality type.

Meanwhile, to take a humanities degree in the university - often on the naive presumption that one is there taught the best of what our culture has created and knows - one must today learn how to deny or deconstruct and criticize so much of the tradition by which Westerners formerly found value, meaning, and identity, and to get along in maternal classrooms where every child is special, where "it's all good". Odes to "critical thinking" ("hegemony" bashing) are substituted for real thinking.

So many us fall down in that world; and if we survive and go on, we may come to see how deeply we have become immersed in resentment's chaos and evil. Then, we should realize the need to renew the means by which we must collectively defer the next violent force, the resentment that is presently eroding what is left of the meanings and identities with which we hope to save ourselves, our sense of purpose in a political and ethical existence.

The means for renewing meaning and identity are the promise and the covenant, the two basic ways by which human beings exchange signs (which lays the ground to exchange things) and in so doing find new ways to signify, identify, value, an always re-forming network of exchange.

Every Thursday the Covenant Zone bloggers meet in the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library, central branch, from 7-9 pm. Consider joining us and helping build up our network for the exchange of political signs, so that we may have a firmer grip on the values and identities that can save us from the seed of evil that is in each of us. We meet under the sign of the blue scarf.


Charles Henry said...

That was very well said; this post helps me focus my own emotions into a more intellectual shape, thank you..!
Isn’t it simply amazing how destructive a force the gravitational pull of envy can be, how some people allow themselves to be ruled by this (most?) animalistic side to our character as human beings?
Your post suddenly reminded me of an old Will Rogers saying I had come upon years ago: “a good measure of a man comes not from how he handles the failure of a friend, but by how he handles that friend’s success”. (or words to that effect)

Opening my Book of Instructions at random this morning, I ended up finding much guidance in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain is incapable of appreciating his own personal achievement of having wrested a crop from out of the soil. All he can see is his second place finish compared to the comparatively easy bounty raised by his pastoral brother Abel. Cain cannot come to see his brother’s success as “our” success as a team, as a family, but instead as an individual victory disconnected from himself. In fact he treats his brother’s victory as the very reason for his failure, as if a cause-and-effect had been triggered by Abel’s triumph, leaving a limited resource allocated incorrectly. His resentment comes from a short-sightedness, from placing a limit where none exists, presuming as he does that God’s favor can be limited to only one soul, and not shared among the many. Like a parent’s precious love, the resource is limitless; having more and more siblings causes no scarcity upon its existence as a resource.

There’s some Cain in all of us, where we know how hard we worked to get ahead, only to see “unearned” success come prematurely to others instead of us. How we handle this conflict will say much of our ability to think long-term over short-term, and to have faith that each instant is not eternity; to defer the resentment of others caused by our limited vision, and instead look for ways to connect with the other and share in their success as a source of mutual glory. I wonder how frequently our generation still uses the expression “Good for You!”, when someone shares news of their good fortune. For too many, with their limited faith, “good for you” means “bad for me”, as if there’s only so much goodness to go around, rather than its actual, limitless, potential supply.

Negotiating a balance between a focus on the self, and an opening to accept others as some shared part of ourselves: for me this is the conflict inherent to being human, as we grope to understand what it can mean to be different-yet-similar to every other fellow human being around us.

It’s interesting to see that to atone for his inability to share in his brother’s good fortune, Cain’s next act was, of all things, the founding of the first city… a veritable symbol of teamwork, as opposed to working as individuals, or as a mere group of individuals... a herd. Cain initiates civilization as atonement for thinking like an animal, for seeing his brother in the manner that animals see each other, competition for limited resources, and the dark fruit that comes from this seed idea: “the more he gets the less there is for me.”

Cain’s inability to handle a single moment of singular resentment of a single other person leads to establishing the human laboratory for the rest of us to learn how to succeed at what he, and this piece of garbage at Virginia Tech, failed to resist: the limitations of the animal half of our natures.

truepeers said...

Charles, there is an old (ca. 1900) hotel (the Delmar, I think) on Cambie (or is it Hamilton?) across from VCC, a block north of Dunsmuir. On the frieze of the building is written "Unlimited Growth Increases the Divide". You should get a photo on one of your walks. Last time I walked by I noticed a sign on the door celebrating the fact that this was a family-run business, providing value to its patrons, and that the building was not for sale to developers.

I like your comment, but I'm unsure whether I can agree that zero-sum thinking and envy is an animal, and not human (our dark side) quality. Yes, when animals of a species (like dogs on a walk) first meet they have to establish a pecking order, and this can entail a lot of fighting, but once this is established the pack can be quite peaceful if the submissive animals truly know their place, as they often do. The alpha's appetite is fed, then the next eats, nothing can be hoarded and the alpha is completely indifferent to the others eating his leftovers. The question of whether mother nature provides endless bounty or shortage is not consciously raised by animals (since they don't have the language to do it) however much the natural context changes behavior according to scarcity or plenty.

What makes humans different from animals is that we do not just have appetites that our biological impulses direct us to serve. We also have desires, i.e. appetites supplemented by a cultural representation of the things we desire. I do not just have an appetite for a piece of meat, but I want a steak from a great and expensive restaurant, so that I can tell you how charmed is my life. I do not want a $20 shoe from Army and Navy (or actually, I, truepeers do) but a $120 pair with a certain famous symbol to differentiate them from yours.

Because we have representations and because we can have desires for symbols, for signs of transcendence, we have both a means of ordering our society in ways much more complex than any animal pecking order, and a new basis for resentful envy unlike anything in the animal world (imagine a German Shepherd spending his life hating Pekingese... it won't ever happen, though a dog may carry an aggressive attitude to one very particular dog). The more we can find new representations and symbols that hold shared attention and that we can exchange in relative peace, the less likely we are to descend into resentful chaos over limited marks of transcendence. Our human envy (desire for what is sacred) can be both a productive and a destructive force, depending, as you note, on how it is channeled.